(It’s that time of year again…)
I assume that almost everyone has one or two memorable cemetery experiences. When we are little we get taken to cemeteries at times of sadness or solemnity and, while it looks like a park it obviously isn’t a fun place. It’s sort of a morbid thought but there is a headstone with my name on it awaiting my arrival in the family cemetery. In a way it is also a little comforting. I recall going to a cemetery as a young child for the burial of one of my dad’s uncles – somebody I never knew existed until we got that late night phone call from Sainte Genevieve. My dad would get these calls from time to time. It would be a short and hushed conversation on the telephone and then he would hang up and announce that Sainte Genevieve called and Uncle so-and-so had died. We had a direct phone line to Sainte Genevieve (how cool was that?) but we very rarely got a happy phone call. She was usually the bearer of bad news. My brother was older and knew what was going on and probably knew who made the call but it was always “Sainte Genevieve called.” It took me a while to learn that Sainte Genevieve was a place. We had family there but we called it “Ste. Gen” when we would go there in happier times to visit.
Cemeteries are places where people create monuments or markers representing how they want to be remembered after they are gone or, more often, how others want them to be remembered. This is an intentional relic of a person’s existence. The ruins at Pompeii or Tikal or Mesa Verde are unintentional relics of someone’s existence. I find them both to be interesting. But what about those folks in unmarked graves? My Irish immigrant ancestors are buried two to a hole in unmarked graves in the same cemetery that holds Tennessee Williams, William Tecumseh Sherman, Dred Scott, Kate Chopin and Father De Smet. My ancestors left behind lots of grieving relatives but none of them had the resources to mark the graves.
I went to college in a very old town with a very old cemetery on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. There were French folks buried there – the ones that settled the place. There were rows of unmarked graves identifiable only as a faint dimple in the grass. I recall one section of about forty unmarked graves that were known to be the victims of a horrific steamboat wreck. Only their date of death was known.
As college students with time on our hands and looking for something to do we would make our way to the old cemetery and just ponder the meaning of life. We usually did this at night and with a few six-packs. One can come close to discovering the meaning of life at night in a spooky cemetery with a few six-packs surrounded by dead people. We were not disrespectful or up to mischief, we were just under age. We had to be careful where we stepped. The cemetery was riddled with large holes where the earth had subsided or local ground hogs had burrowed into some of the graves. The tree roots would reach out and grab your feet if you weren’t careful.
One of our group was a direct descendant of the old French trader who founded the town. He even carried his surname. The trader’s wife’s grave was the oldest…not counting the Indians. We avoided that part of the cemetery.
On one of these excursions we came across a woman’s headstone that made us stop in our tracks. The stone was by itself – not in a family group. It gave her name followed by the word “Spinster” and her date of birth: October 31, 1815 (yes, Halloween), and her date of death: December 31, 1899. The poor woman lived 85 years and almost made it to 1900 but instead, somebody decided to label her as “Spinster” and leave her there by herself. That’s how they wanted her to be remembered. She was certainly on our minds when we pondered the meaning of life that night. The next day, probably a Saturday or Sunday, we went back and made a charcoal rubbing of her headstone and another headstone we found of a Revolutionary War soldier. We taped the headstone rubbings up on the dorm room wall…for some reason. Not as a trophy but sort of a cautionary remembrance.
After a while, things started happening…weird things (of course). Unseen visitors were rearranging things…moving things from place to place. One of the guys was awakened during the night when he felt someone sit on his bed…there was no one there. Other things that were hanging on the wall fell to the floor but not the headstone rubbings. Finally somebody saw the figure of a woman come out of the dorm room closet and walk across the room and disappear. This was at night but she was visible with an eerie glow. That was enough. She came down off the wall and the old soldier did too, just to be on the safe side. Was it just the power of suggestion? Once one odd thing happened, did we imagine the other occurrences? When the old woman’s headstone rubbing came down the strange occurrences stopped. This was followed by a self-imposed silence on the entire topic. I don’t recall it being discussed or mutually agreed to…just that none of us felt comfortable talking about it. We stopped going to the cemetery at night after that. We found other ways to explore the meaning of life. When we all went our separate ways after college we left behind a well hidden time capsule that included an account of the cemetery adventure and the subsequent occurrences.
Some years later I happened to meet a younger alumnus of my Alma Mater who happened to live on the same floor of the same dorm building about three or four years after I graduated. Our time capsule had been found — we were not as clever as we thought. I’ve never followed it up but my acquaintance said that there were still a few unexplained events taking place. The power of suggestion is alive and well….or perhaps it’s the “Spinster”.
(Revised and reposted — from the original posted on The Red Room)